February 15, 2011


“I’m a professional funologist!” exclaims Jessica Hammer, a PhD candidate in cognitive studies at Columbia University, when describing her career. Jessica develops games that help to change the way people think in order to overcome cognitive challenges and addictions. If you thought quitting smoking, exercising more, or managing anger had to be a painful process, Jessica hopes to prove you wrong. As a member of Columbia University’s Teachers College EGGPLANT Game Research Laboratory, and of the Creativity, Cognition and Learning research group, Jessica has presented her work at academically distinguished meetings in the US and internationally.  Prior to her time at Columbia, Jessica was a consultant and game designer, with a focus on serious games and social software. After graduating from Harvard University with a BA in Computer Science, she went on to earn her masters degree in Interactive Telecommunications from NYU. Jessica has since created the game design course sequence at Teachers College, which has turned out students who have produced award-winning games. If Jessica doesn’t seem busy enough to you already, you should know that in her free time she runs an experimental storytelling group in New York City.

With Jessica’s help, people will be able to change their lives by tackling the hardest issues in the most fun ways possible. Get ready to play the game of LIFE-- literally.


Describe your day to day activities:
I read academic articles in half-a-dozen fields and figure out how they might apply to game design. I play a lot of games—some enjoyable, some really terrible!—and analyze how they function. I watch people play games while taking notes on their behavior (sometimes I hook them up to machines, too). Then I use all that knowledge to design and program games of my own, ones that help me ask interesting research questions and are still fun to play!

Explain your career path thus far:

As a kid, I designed games to play with my friends at birthday parties. I read everything I can get my hands on. I’ve had some fantastic mentors, students and colleagues. Presto! A career!

The best perk of your career?

My secret underground lair, stocked with games of all sorts that I am professionally obligated to play. This is also known as a game research lab.

Define a “funologist”:

Someone who hunts down the elusive beast of playful experience - then pins it to a board, cuts it open, and gets elbow-deep in the guts of how it works.

What is your idea of fun?

Improvisation. Solving a hard problem. Singing at the top of my lungs.

Why do games work to change people's lives?

There’s no one answer to that question, but recently I’ve been thinking about how games can help with the New Year’s Resolution problem. Many of the things people want to do have short-term costs and long-term rewards, like quitting smoking, or exercising more, or managing anger. When you’re faced with an actual choice, though, those long-term rewards seem awfully far away. You pick up the cigarette, or skip the gym, or lose your temper. Games can help refocus your attention on the moment, both by making the right decision a more pleasant one and by giving you some short-term rewards to keep you going.

What inspires you to create a game?


What is “experimental story-telling”?

I want to understand the impact of new technologies and new ideas on how people make and consume stories. In practice, this means trying a whole lot of different things, from multi-media theater to role-playing games to smartphone-enabled improvisation, and then thinking carefully about what worked and what didn’t.

Your greatest accomplishment:

When my students go on to achieve amazing things. For example, a group of my game design students won a grant to develop their final project from my class. Then they turned around and hired me as their game design consultant. I can’t think of a higher compliment as a teacher, or as a game designer!

Your real-life hero:

My father, Michael Hammer. On a personal level, he taught me to be curious, intellectually eclectic, compassionate, skeptical and determined. He believed that everyone needed meaningful work in their lives, and he always encouraged me to find mine. On a professional level, his work on business has been surprisingly useful to me as a game designer. For example, the chapter on company metrics in his last book could be called “Feedback Mechanics 101.”  He died in 2008, but he still inspires me every day.

When or where are you happiest?

Right now.

What makes you laugh?

My husband.

How do you spend your evenings?

I block out at least two hours a night for screen-free thinking and reading. It’s a good way to make sure I stay intellectually engaged and active beyond the world of games, and makes me a better designer to boot.

Most fun place in NYC:

My house. It’s full of games and books and fascinating people and pie. Everyone likes pie.

No comments:

Post a Comment